Think Only Dogs Make Good Hiking Companions? Think Again.

In Sedona, you might see this fluffy, white adventure cat on the trails.

Shrugs, a two-year-old rescue Ragdoll, frequently hikes with his owners in Sedona.

Shugs, a two-year-old rescue Ragdoll, frequently hikes with his owners in Sedona.

Photo courtesy of Michael Sallinger

It’s not uncommon to see a friendly golden retriever or rambunctious Australian shepherd bounding down the red clay trails around Sedona, Arizona. Not as commonplace is a luxuriously fluffy white cat that looks straight out of a Fancy Feast commercial.

But Shuggie (Shugs for short), a two-year-old rescue Ragdoll goes out hiking several times a week in Sedona with his “cat daddy” Michael Sallinger and his girlfriend Maya Daito, climbing rocks, crossing stream beds, and inspecting Indigenous caves in the sunset-hued buttes that frame the idyllic desert town.

What Sallinger didn’t expect was just how much attention Shuggie would get on the trail from tourists and avid hikers alike, ranging from shrieks of “Oh my God, look at the cat!” to requests for selfies with Shuggie.

“A lot of them say, ‘You made my day,’” Sallinger shares. Many will ask how he trained the cat to enjoy the trails. Shuggie, in true cat form, just ignores the attention.

However, Sallinger is the first to admit that Shuggie’s hiking prowess isn’t a matter of extensive training. It just came naturally. Two weeks after adopting the cat, Sallinger and Daito, both massage therapists at Mii Amo at the nearby Enchantment Resort, found out the breed was prone to obesity and decided to take him out for exercise on the Chimney Rock trail close to their home.

Outfitted in a harness and leash, the couple just started walking, knowing that they might have to carry the big feline the whole way. However, they were surprised to see him shadowing them closely, looking happy with his tail pointing straight up.

“Midway through, we took the leash off, he was following us so well. He just adapted really quickly,“ Sallinger says.

The couple managed to go almost two miles that day, picking up Shuggie only occasionally. Over the following months, they were able to build up the length of Shug’s hikes. Now he can go up to six miles on his own four paws, longer than many of the two-legged hikers around him.


Photos courtesy of Michael Sallinger

Ironically, Shugs was supposed to be a house cat companion to Sallinger’s older cat Pedals, who used to love prowling around outdoors. But Pedals has almost completely ceded outdoor adventure to Shuggie, spending most of his days relaxing on the open-air “catio” they have rigged up with hammocks and netting.

While Pedals lounges, Shugs comes running every time they pick up his collar, which is ringed with bells. As Sallinger and Daito gather their things, an excited Shuggie will warm up on his hamster wheel–style treadmill in their apartment, showing off. Then, just like a Labrador, he’s up and raring to go as soon as they open the door.

One of the trio’s favorite trails in Sedona is the popular West Fork of Oak Creek Trail, which is shaded and cooler than many other trails in Sedona. But Daito says Shug is the happiest when he’s taking in one of Sedona’s breathtaking views from a cave or other vista point.

“When he sees an inspiring view, he starts purring,”Daito added. “Maybe he’s picking up on our energy.” Conversely, Sallinger says that Shuggie lets him know when a trail is too steep, too rocky, or if he’s too tired, by making a grumbling noise, or just laying down in front of them on the trail until the couple agrees to sit down and rest for a few minutes.

The duo carries a cat backpack full of supplies for when the trails get slushy, or if a tired Shuggie needs a ride on long steep hikes, such as the time he ascended Wilson Mountain with his owner, probably becoming the first house cat to summit the local peak.

For Daito, having this new hiking companion has been a blessing, forcing Sallinger, a hardcore trail runner and cyclist, to pare back the intensity and pace.

“Michael likes it when it’s very steep and is very focused on the destination,” Daito says. “I like to go slower and stare out at the scenery. Thanks to Shuggie, we stop at every tree,” she says, chuckling.

What’s next for the adventure-seeking cat? After doing an overnight camping trip without him in West Fork, the couple hopes to find a way to take him on their next outdoor trip, letting him sleep with them in a tent. They have started documenting Shuggie’s adventures in the wild on the Instagram account, @captainshugs.

People just assume, Sallinger says, that cats aren’t interested in or capable of exploring the great outdoors with their owners. Maybe part of it is they haven’t tried.

Who knows? Maybe cats love hiking more than we know. Shugs, for one, misses his hikes when the desert weather gets too hot to hit the trail. That’s when you’ll find him riding in Sallinger’s car with the windows rolled down, sticking his white fluffy head out of the window in the breeze.

Yep, just like a dog.

Melinda Fulmer is a lifestyle writer and editor with travel, food, health, and wellness bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, AAA, and other major media channels. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @melindafulmer.
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